FOCUS speaks with Jeremy Saunders about the local lauguage of the Birrbay, Guringay and Wattimay – Gathang.
What’s your earliest memory of speaking Gathang?
Gathang has always been a part of communication in my family and within the Aboriginal community. Various words and phrases are still widely used today in common language or Aboriginal English.
My earliest memories of Gathang are of hearing my grandparents and Elders talking and telling stories. Being taught by my parents and family to refer to body parts, animals and place names in Gathang.
Uncle Bert Marr was a big influence in my life with our local language and culture. He taught many Aboriginal boys from my generation, from all around the Mid North Coast about their language, culture and heritage.
How did the book ‘A Grammar and Dictionary of Gathang’ come about, and who have been its key contributors?
Over the past 150 years, several people have made attempts to record a written version of Gathang. The most reputable and comprehensive written and vocal recordings were done by a linguist named Nils Holmer with Biripi man, Uncle Eddie Lobbin.
Several years ago, Muurrbay Many Rivers Aboriginal Language Centre (MRALC) were successful in their application for funding to assist North Coast Aboriginal community groups in traditional language revitalisation and research.
So Biripi, Worimi and Guringay people came together and created the Gathang Language Group and formed a partnership with Muurrbay MRALC. With the help and guidance from linguist Amanda Lissarrague and Muurrbay staff, we were able get access to lots of information that had been stored in the Australian archives.
We also liaised and collected stories, words and records from local Aboriginal families that have retained their language and cultural heritage and were willing to share their knowledge.
Why is it important to keep the local language alive?
Gathang is the language of this land; it has been spoken in this area for thousands of years.
Colonisation and dispossession of Aboriginal lands has had a detrimental effect on traditional languages throughout Australia. Some languages are on the brink of being lost.
Language revitalisation is crucial if we are to preserve our traditional languages for now and into the future.
Language is a major part of our identity as Australian Aborigines and an important way with which we connect to country.
How is local language being taught?
We have been very fortunate that Muurrbay have formed a partnership with TAFE to create an accredited course that is being run at the Taree and Forster campus and will soon start at Port Macquarie TAFE.
We are using a teaching method called Accelerated Second Language Acquisition, ASLA.
This teaching method was designed by Arapaho man Professor Stephen Greymorning from North America.
Last week we were very pleased to have him come and attend our local language class and share with us his knowledge and experience.
Our goal is to encourage Biripi, Worimi and Guringay peoples to get on board and involved in the language classes. We aim to nurture and support a number of local Aboriginal language students to become confident in being teachers of Gathang.
How does Gathang differ from English?
Gathang has a different vowel system, and some consonants are paired to create different sounds. Using Standard English to represent these sounds in a written form is not suitable and can cause confusion and mispronunciation for the reader. The grammar section in the A Grammar and Dictionary of Gathang is critical if the learner is to fully understand the concepts of Gathang word form, correct pronunciation and sentence structure.